Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972)

‘Maybe you’d prefer to drink from my empty skull.’

A dissolute writer is suspected by the police after one of his ex-students is brutally murdered. His maid meets the same fate afterwards, and realising that this will almost certainly mean arrest and conviction for the crimes, he persuades his wife to help him hide the corpse in their wine cellar…

High-quality Giallo from director Sergio Martino, who sprinkles his tale of suspicion and murder with more than a touch of Edgar Allan Poe. The Italian film industry was pumping out these horror thrillers by the dozen in the early 1970s, and all the main cast and crew here had plenty of previous experience in the field.

Things are not working out too well for Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli). Once a celebrated author, he has not published in years, even teaching opportunities vanishing due to his lack of output. As a member of the nobility, he doesn’t have to worry about money, but that’s a double-edged sword. Walled up in his crumbling villa, he’s taken to the bottle, inviting local hippies around for group debauchery and knocking about long-suffering wife Irina (Anita Strindberg). He’s also having an affair with ex-student Fausta (Daniela Giordano), and when she turns up with her throat cut, local Inspector Farla (Franco Nebbia) inevitably begins looking his way. Fortunately, Strindberg backs up his dodgy alibi.

But there’s much worse to come. The unhappy couple’s maid, Brenda (Angela La Vorgna), is mysteriously murdered at the villa a few nights later, putting Pistilli’s head firmly in the noose. But he proclaims his innocence and persuades Strindberg to help conceal the body in the cellar. The girl’s disappearance seems to draw little attention, but then Pistilli gets a telegram from his niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) inviting herself for an extended visit. She’s already on her way, so the conspirators must grin and bear it. However, once she arrives, it becomes increasingly clear that she has more on her mind than just a casual holiday. The villa seems to be under surveillance too, but just who is mystery man Walter (Ivan Rassimov) and what are his intentions?

Unlike Martino’s previous excursions into Giallo territory, this project leans more toward the traditional murder mystery. Events are almost entirely centred on Pistilli’s villa, the cast is small, and the action is focused firmly on the three principals. Rather than the escalating body count suggested by the first act, this is more of an exercise in suspense and intrigue. Martino lays out his slow breadcrumb trail of clues, courtesy of the screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi, Adriano Bolzoni and Sauro Scavolini. When developments and revelations arrive in the final act, they are logical and satisfying. However, it’s probable that the final twist won’t surprise anyone with a passing knowledge of the horror genre.

Best of all, though, is the work delivered in front of the camera. Pistilli is superb as the twisted Oliviero, often drunk, fixated on his dead mother, protective of her black cat (named Satan!) and permanently teetering on the edge of an outburst, be it violent, sexual or both. Going toe to toe with him are the women in his life; Strindberg outstanding as the beaten-down wife with a core of steel, and Fenech note-perfect as the playful, promiscuous Floriana, whose actions progressively indicate a much darker agenda than is first suggested. Her character plays husband and wife off against each other, first just sleeping with both of them, but eventually suggesting that they kill each other. The dynamic between the trio is a tricky balance to strike in the context of a mystery plot where motivations and plans have to remain hidden. Still, all three deliver with force or subtlety as and when the situation requires it.

In the spirit of the low-key nature of the drama, Martino shows admirable restraint in his direction while still displaying a fine eye for composition and tone. The murders are gory but brief, although it could be argued that this is not so much to heighten their impact as to hide some rather inadequate FX work. Still, the camera movement is particularly good; hand-held for the violent scenes, more elegant moves reserved to build suspense and emphasise the claustrophobic surroundings.

If there’s not all that much here for the committed gore-hound, then Martino compensates for the lack of blood with plenty of sex. Not only do we get to see quite a lot of Fenech and Strindberg, including a shared scene, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual violence and perversion present throughout. It’s implied that Oliviero slept with his mother, and he forces himself on Strindberg a couple of times, once after attempting to stab her in a cage of doves in clear sight of anyone who might be passing by. Servant La Vorgna tries on an old dress that belonged to Pistilli’s mother, something which is clearly pushing her buttons, only to be slaughtered in the process. No judgement here, but this is a household with a lot of issues!

Despite the film’s undoubted strengths, a few flaws hold it back from the first rank of the Giallo thriller. These mainly revolve around the film’s second act. Yes, the story is designed as a slow burn, but there’s a feeling of marking time at this point. Fenech’s liaison with delivery boy and motorbike racer Dario (Riccardo Salvino) is the main culprit, and although it does play into the story’s eventual outcome, it could have been integrated a little more into the overall plot or discarded altogether. The police investigation also seems strangely half-hearted. Yes, there’s a somewhat contrived development halfway through that takes the heat off Pistilli, but is no one in authority interested when the only servant of a murder suspect suddenly up and leaves the district without a word to anyone? The Poe references also feel a little forced at times, although it only becomes obvious towards the end of the film.

Martino began his film career in various behind-the-scenes roles, including a few projects as an assistant director, before taking the plunge as the man with the megaphone on Spaghetti Western ‘Arizona Colt, Hired Gun/Arizona si scatenò… e li fece fuori tutti!’ (1970). A year later, he delivered the outstanding Giallo ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971), which again starred Fenech. That film provided the title for this one, with the phrase appearing in a threatening note that she receives at one point in the story. Further Gialli followed and included two of the sub-genre’s most prominent examples, ‘All the Colors of the Dark/Tutti i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Torso/I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale’ (1973). He subsequently worked in comedy and crime drama but was also responsible for the controversial jungle exploitation of ‘Slave of the Cannibal God/La montagna del dio cannibale’ (1977) and the less contentious ‘Island of the Fishmen/L’isola degli uomini pesce’ (1979). Later, he ventured into the post-nuclear wasteland with the stupidly enjoyable ‘2019: After the Fall of New York/2019 – Dopo la caduta di New York’ (1983) and the rather dreary ‘Hands of Steel/Vendetta dal futuro’ (1986). He retired from the business in 2012.

A strong mystery thriller, elevated further by a trio of excellent lead performances.

An Open Tomb…An Empty Coffin/La casa de las muertas vivientes/The Nights of the Scorpion (1972)

‘Our behaviour hasn’t exactly been normal.’

A wealthy young landowner remarries a year after the accidental death of his first wife. Bringing his bride back home causes tensions with his sister and young stepmother, and, after a while, old family secrets begin tumbling out of the shadows…

Somewhat old-fashioned Spanish-Italian murder mystery from writer-director Alfonso Balcázar. One central location and a small principal cast give a feel more akin to a ‘closed circle’ Agatha Christie whodunnit than the more extravagant Giallo thrillers of the time.

Dark and brooding young widower Oliver Bromfield (José Antonio Amor) marries employee Ruth (Daniela Giordano) after a whirlwind romance. It’s his second marriage, his first wife Helen (Gioia Desideri) having suffered a fatal fall a year earlier. Meeting the family isn’t an enjoyable experience for Giordano, with the Bromfield residence still being home to Amor’s sister, Jenny (Teresa Gimpera) and his young, attractive stepmother, Sara (Nuria Torray). Gimpera simply ignores her, and Torray seems a little too concerned with her new hubby’s physical welfare.

It’s not long before she starts wondering about the circumstances surrounding the first Mrs Bromfield’s accidental death. She’s shocked to learn from Torray that Amor has an alcohol problem, and he becomes increasingly distant and moody. Keen to dispel the black cloud that hovers above him, Giordano begins to dig for more information about Desideri’s accident. She questions family physician Carlo Gentili about the circumstances and hires private detective Osvaldo Genazzani to pose as her uncle on a family visit. Unfortunately, his presence triggers a somewhat violent chain of events.

This is a slow-burn thriller from director Balcázar, who scripted with Giovanni Simonelli from a story originated with colleague José Ramón Larraz. Broadly, it’s a more murderous riff on Daphne Du Maurier’s famous novel ‘Rebecca’, with a ‘fish out of water’ new bride coming to suspect that her troubled husband killed her predecessor. Proceedings also begin in a creepy fashion; only it’s not a nocturnal visit to the ruins of Manderlay but the family graveside at Desideri’s funeral. Where the coffin is opened so everyone can get one last look at her corpse. It’s quite a striking introduction, but it does leave the impression they are checking to see if she’s still in residence! The Spanish title of the film, which translates as ‘House of the Living Dead Women’, may have been a metaphorical one. However, combining it with this opening probably meant that some ticket-buyers expected a different kind of story. After all, it seems unlikely that such a last graveside view of the deceased is a traditional Spanish custom. Actually, it’s common among wealthy families for the departed to be placed in a niche at a cemetery for several years before final burial.

After the burial, we get a conversation between Amor and Torray that establishes his drinking problem and possible responsibility for Desideri’s death. One night, she fell from the balcony at the top of the stairs, and Amor was on the scene. Unfortunately, he was very drunk at the time and can’t recall what happened. Curiously, this scene was cut from the Spanish release, along with the brief nudity later on, but both elements were retained in the Italian version. Fast forward to a year later and Giordano’s arrival, which stirs up the family skeletons. Amor is the head of the household, with his father long gone, and it’s pretty clear that the frustrated Torray finds it hard to keep her hands to herself where he’s concerned. Giordano also discovers that one of the causes of Amor’s drinking was his suspicions concerning Desideri’s behaviour. Probably the fact that she liked to pose naked for artist Gimpera was a bit of a red flag in that department. The estate also comes with handyman Peter, who enjoys nothing better than wandering about the grounds carrying sharp gardening tools!

This setup has some possibilities, but the finished article demands a high level of patience from the audience. There’s one killing around the hour mark, but all the other action comes in a flurry in the last few minutes, by which time some viewers may have already cashed out. Not every Giallo has to focus on a swiftly escalating body count, of course, but, in that case, there needs to be a developing mystery to keep the audience hooked. Here, the drama is more like a series of largely inconsequential tête-à-têtes between characters that don’t really advance the plot.

The story also feels padded at times. Giordano spills her milk on the carpet, which is lapped up by the family cat, who immediately has a seizure and dies. Seconds later, when she tries to show the family what’s happened, the furry feline is alive and well. Was she hallucinating? The film never returns to the incident or bothers to explain it. There’s also the incredible mystery of the car keys. First, they’re missing from the ignition of the family runabout, but then – gasp! – they magically reappear when she returns to the garage with her husband. Wow. Hold the front page. Also, it seems that Giordano is prompted to begin her investigation solely because her husband is a bit moody, which doesn’t seem a sufficient reason to interrogate the family doctor about intimate medical matters or employ a detective.

The film does have some good aspects, however. The cast is fine, particularly Torray as the unhappy Sara, although the script does provide her with the standout role. Harder then for Giordano to make an impression as the put-upon heroine, but make an impression she does, giving Ruth an appealingly down-to-earth quality which helps ground the drama and keep the audience invested. There’s also a nice turn from the uncredited actor playing the sinister handyman, presumably filling in for the ubiquitous Luciano Pigozzi, who was probably off somewhere else making half a dozen other films. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to pull for Amor’s character, which is written as entirely humourless and unlikeable. Of course, he is our primary suspect, so that’s understandable, but his romance with Giordano is only established in a montage beneath the opening credits. Opening out these scenes, even briefly, might have provided some depth to his character and provided an effective contrast with his later behaviour.

Balcázar was a Spanish writer-director whose career began in the late 1950s but picked up steam with the sudden success of the Spaghetti Western. A writing assignment on the workmanlike ‘The Man from Oklahoma/Oklahoma John/Il ranch degli spietati’ (1965) led to double duty on the well-acted but also unremarkable ‘Five Thousand Dollars on One Ace/Los Pistoleros de Arizona’ (1965). However, he contributed, albeit uncredited, to the script of director Duccio Tessari’s ‘A Pistol for Ringo/Una pistola per Ringo’ (1965), an important genre landmark and the best of its kind since Sergio Leone’s ‘Fistful of Dollars’ (1964). He found time to script a handful of Eurospy exploits amongst all the Old West adventures that followed. He even directed one, the stubbornly anonymous ‘Electra One/Con La Muerte A La Espalda (1967)’. The fading box office appeal of the Spaghetti Western and the financial problems in the European film industry in the latter half of the 1970s probably contributed to the slowdown of his career that followed. He made his last film in 1983 and passed on a decade later.

Not without merit, but this thriller takes a long time to get going and ends up nowhere all that special.

Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

‘I’m a wild man with turbo hormones!’Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

A handsome young man about town picks up a beautiful girl in the park. Together, they go out on a first date, but she comes home afterwards with her dress torn. She relates her version of the night’s events to her mother, while the man tells a very different story to his friends. His apartment building’s doorman also has his own take on what happened…

Dated Italian romantic comedy which serves as a time capsule of an era, and perhaps a nation, by showcasing some very different attitudes towards women, sexual politics and relationships to those that we hold today. It also proved a rather odd, and unprofitable, diversion in the career of horror director and visual stylist Mario Bava.

Good looking playboy Gianni (Brett Halsey) is out for some action, cruising the daytime streets and trying to pick up women. After several rebuffs, he targets the beautiful, dark-haired Tina (Daniela Giordano) who is walking a dog. She flees into the park, but he chases after her, and they eventually meet when he trips over her pet. She returns home in the early hours after their first date with a torn dress and relates her version of events to her straight-laced mother. After getting her back to his place on a pretext, he tried to rape her. When she resisted, he hit her a few times before she escaped. Yes, my friends, it’s just your typical romantic comedy.

Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

Meanwhile, Halsey is in a bar with friends, explaining how he got scratched on the forehead. In his story, he’s a shy, awkward man pursued by women, particularly the voracious Giordano. She’s an aggressive, sexual predator who almost forced him into sex after their date, wounding him in her violent passion. A third version of the evening’s event is provided by doorman Beppe (Dick Randall), who enlivens the long hours looking after the building where Halsey lives by moonlighting as a part-time peeping tom. According to him, as soon as the couple get back, Halsey invites neighbours Giorgio (Robert H Oliver) and Esmeralda (Pascale Petit) to join them. Halsey and Oliver disappear behind closed doors because they’re gay, while Petit attempts to seduce Giordano by drugging her drink, so she passes out. Yes, my friends, it’s still just your typical romantic comedy.

The fourth version of events comes from lab-coated scientist Calisto Calisti, who explains the flexibility of the truth by citing the differing viewpoints of some of the animals on Noah’s Ark! His version of the evening’s events with Halsey and Giordano is far more grounded and less dramatic. She tears her dress by accident, and Halsey is injured at the same time. When she wonders how she will explain the damage to her mother, it’s Halsey who suggests a story of attempted rape. They both laugh because it’s so hilarious. Obviously. Don’t forget; it’s a romantic comedy!
Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

This last segment has led some commentators to theorise that Bava was using this scenario to examine notions of objectivity and the impossibility of arriving at absolute truth, much in the manner of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (1950). The figure of the scientist does appear to be providing an accurate record of events. However, he’s revealed at the climax as just another unreliable narrator; just a metaphor for the art of storytelling itself. That’s as may be. It could have also have been that Bava was simply trying to have a little fun with the lightweight material.

Fans of the maestro will spot a few of his signature touches here. There’s a 360-degree camera pan around Halsey and Giordano as they share a shower, and some foregrounding of objects in the nightclub scene to create the illusion of size and depth. There’s also a brief sequence where Giordano gazes at Halsey through a vase of red glass, but it’s slim pickings for fans of his more visually stylish work.
Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

The film is more interesting today for some of the attitudes laid out on casual display. Violence towards women is no big deal, rape is a source for humour, and our leading man is introduced kerb-crawling and trying to pick up women as if they were prostitutes. Giordano also gets some very unfortunate dialogue about homosexuality. Times have sure changed. Of course, it’s probable that this was also a reflection of the famous Italian ‘machismo’ as much as anything else. It’s interesting to note that Halsey is easily the most effective as the swaggering playboy and looks rather uncomfortable in the segment where he plays a homosexual. On the other hand, Giordano sails through the picture, convincing in all the various iterations of her character.

It was also a very troubled production. Money ran out early on, and the picture had to be re-financed. Additionally, despite being filmed in 1969, it wasn’t released in Italy until three years later, despite hitting cinemas in Canada in 1971. The delay was caused by director Riccardo Freda, who was working as head of the Italian censorship board at the time. He blocked the film’s release; in later years, claiming that he did it as a favour to his old friend Bava, because of the low quality of the finished work.
Four Times That Night/Quante volte… quella notte (1971)

Halsey was an American actor whose career began with small, unfeatured roles in big studio films before he transitioned to more notable work on US Network television, including appearances in ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘Highway Patrol.’ His big break in films came in the title role of monster sequel ‘Return of the Fly’ (1959) and, eventually, to co-lead in ‘Follow the Sun’, a production from 20th Century Fox Television that followed the adventures of two dashing young journalists based in Hawaii. Offers of leading film roles followed from Europe, and he spent the rest of the 1960s starring in a variety of projects, including Spaghetti Westerns, crime dramas and spy flicks such as ‘Bang You’re Dead’ (1965) and ‘Espionage in Lisbon’ (1965). His continental tour ended with another Bava project ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970) before he returned to the US and guest slots on countless Network TV shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, like ‘Columbo’, ‘Fantasy Island’, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and ‘Airwolf.’

Viewed half a century later, it’s necessary to make some allowances for the prejudices and attitudes on display. However, the film is simply not very funny and, as that’s the primary function of a comedy, that’s the standard by which it should be assessed.